When someone schedules an estate planning or long-term care planning meeting with an attorney at our firm, they are asked to complete our Client Questionnaire and send it to us prior to that meeting. This is the case for both clients who are new to us who don’t already have an estate plan and for returning clients who are coming in to update their estate plan. There are often questions about why we need this information so I thought I would take the opportunity this month to explain why this is so important when it comes to estate planning.
Q. Why do you need detailed information about my assets? We ask for detailed information about your assets, including their value, how they are owned, how beneficiaries are designated, and the nature of the asset (i.e. whether an account is an IRA or other type of qualified retirement account or not) so that we can properly advise you about probate avoidance, long-term care planning, legacy planning, as well as estate planning and estate taxes.
Probate Avoidance. One of the primary goals of estate planning is to pass assets to family at death without the need for probate. Probate is the court process of changing the title on an asset when the owner of the asset passes away. Probate can take a long time, cost a lot of money, and cause surviving family members much aggravation. As such, many folks want to avoid probate. There are several ways to avoid probate depending upon an individual’s circumstances and the type of assets he or she owns. In order for us to advise you about your options for probate avoidance our estate planning and probate attorneys need to know about your assets.
Estate Tax Planning. Although the federal estate tax is not currently a concern for many people because our current tax code permits each person to pass on $11.4 million of assets free of any federal estate tax, this is not the case in Massachusetts where we have a $1 million exemption for estate taxes. As such it is important to consider estate tax planning. Whether your estate will owe federal or Massachusetts estate tax depends upon the value of your taxable estate when you pass away. In order to determine whether your estate will be liable for estate taxes and to advise you about your options for reducing or eliminating that tax, we need to know the nature and value of your assets.
Long-term Care Planning. Long-term care planning is typically planning to preserve assets from having to spent down on long-term care costs. Such planning can be done in advance (the need for long-term care is not imminent) or in a crisis (nursing home care is imminent or likely within the next few months). In either case, our long-term care attorneys, need to have detailed information about assets and income in order to advise you about your options for planning to preserve your assets. When we are working with a married couple, information about both spouses’ assets is needed since eligibility for some long-term care benefits programs is contingent on both spouses meeting the criteria imposed by the benefits program.
Estate Planning. Estate planning is done to make sure your assets pass to the people you intend at your death. How an asset is owned and how beneficiaries (if any) are designated on an asset will determine how that asset will be distributed at your death. In order to give you advice about whether or not changes to asset ownership or beneficiary designations are necessary based on your estate planning goals, we need to know how assets are owned and how beneficiaries are designated currently, so we can work with you to create the most accurate estate plan for you and your family.
Q. Why do I have to complete a Client Questionnaire if I am already a client? An important aspect to having an estate plan that actually accomplishes your goals is to keep your plan up to date. Your life is not static – family situations change, health changes, income and assets change, etc. These factors have an impact on the type of estate plan you should have and the provisions of your plan. We actively encourage our clients to regularly review and update their estate plan to ensure the success of that plan. Returning clients sometimes question the need to complete an updated Questionnaire saying that ‘nothing has changed.’ If it has been more than a few years since you filled out a Client Questionnaire, completing an updated Questionnaire will ensure that we are best able to advise you. We would be happy to send you a copy of the most recent Client Questionnaire we have on file for you so that can you work off of that in updating your information Just ask Jen to send that to you when you schedule your appointment. Having an updated Questionnaire in your file will also help us help your family members in the event you become incapacitated, and at the time of your death, as we will be able to give them information about assets, help them locate a safe deposit box, etc. This can save a lot of time and effort for family members.
Q. The Questionnaire is 14 pages long – do I really need to fill out the entire form? Yes, we do want you to complete the Questionnaire in its entirety. Some of the sections may not apply to you and you should indicate that on the form. For example, we ask about ownership interests in a business – if you do not own an interest in a business, you will skip this section. If you do not have life insurance, you will skip that section. The last page of the Questionnaire asks about your goals for your planning – is reducing taxes important to you? Are you concerned about protecting the inheritance you leave your children from their creditors, such as a divorcing spouse or a lawsuit? We want to know what is important to you so that we can help you create the right estate plan that is best for you and your family.
Q. Do you share that information with anyone outside of your firm? Of course not! We are lawyers, and confidentiality is of paramount importance to us. Our staff is also well-trained on keeping all client information, including the names of our clients, confidential.
We’re here to help you achieve your estate and long-term care planning goals. Whether those goals are probate avoidance, estate tax reduction, preserving assets from the high cost of long-term care, or simply the peace of mind in knowing that you have put your affairs in order, successful legacy planning begins with our collection of the information requested on our Client Questionnaire.
© 2019 Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC